By Matthew Higgins and Kaitlin Servant
Citizen Chronicle Writers

SOUTHBRIDGE — Locals will lace up their ice skates and enjoy the century old tradition of skating at “The Rez” tomorrow, thanks in part to volunteers like retired Deputy Fire Chief Ajay LaRochelle.

For more than a century, with cooperation from Mother Nature, area residents have been able to indulge in this winter tradition. It will continue tomorrow from 12:00 noon to 3:00pm. If it wasn’t for a small group of dedicated volunteers throughout the years, however, this tradition would be nothing more than a distant memory.

Prior to 1994, the Rez hadn’t been used for public skating in nearly 15 years.

“They were going to tear the building down. It was condemned,” LaRochelle said.

After running training exercises on the property, LaRochelle and some other members of the fire brigade began reminiscing on their younger years.

“Everyone in town learned to swim there, it was run by the Red Cross. And during the winters we all skated there,” he recalled enthusiastically.

It was then that several members of “the [Southbridge] Fire Department as whole” adopted the project, he said.

“We just called ourselves The Friends of the Rez,” LaRochelle explained. “We tried to stay as anonymous as we could, and we were never looking for any recognition.”

Getting the Rez prepared for public skating is by no means an easy task, especially after a storm like Winter Storm Grayson, which swept through our area on Thursday dumping upwards of 14-16 inches in parts of Southern Worcester County.

“With this major snow storm, we felt that we had enough ice that we could put the Kubota tractor out there, so we put the snow blower attachment on,” LaRochelle explained. “With that we were able to clear off all the snow. You go down the middle and you just keep blowing it to the sides. Once they were done, there were still windrows, so they would need to do the whole thing again, of course they would go a little faster now. Now we are closed [Saturday] because of the extreme cold, but tomorrow we will put the brush back on the tractor, and Nick Cantara will sweep it.”

Cantara and his father, Jason, are volunteers with the Friends of the Rez and each don a Southbridge Fire Department helmet and turnout gear.

“The young kids are helping out now, like Steven Delage, son of Kenny Delage, both quiet contributors to the volunteer group,” LaRochelle said. “And of course, Nick Cantara.”

It’s this younger wave of the Friends of the Rez that help get through such tough winter conditions.

“People don’t realize it, but it took about 12-man hours to get the ice prepared for tomorrow,” said LaRochelle. “And it’s single digits out there.”

It has taken years of trial and error to learn how to properly maintain the ice to make it usable, safe, and fun for everyone. He admitted to making “every mistake you could make with ice, and then I invented about 7 more because I always tried to do too much with it, to make it perfect. But it’s a pond, and you have to deal with what nature gives you.”

When asked what inspires him to continue volunteering countless hours in such bitter cold, LaRochelle offered an altruistic mindset.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s just the people you meet along the way,” he said. “Watching the kids, they’d come up from the ice, glasses fogged up, they couldn’t see out of them, cheeks rosy red. All that kind of stuff.”

Resident Jolene Perry recently shared a photo and glowing review of the Rez on Facebook.

“We went to the Rez today for some free skating fun. I cannot thank Southbridge enough for providing these types of activities for our community,” she wrote. “My son, Bryan, had a blast and those there helping were so kind and amazing. Thank you, Southbridge! We will be back tomorrow. Free skates, warm place to defrost/rest and food/snacks under $1 at their concession stand!”

Brian Perry recently enjoyed his time out on the ice at the Rez.

Southbridge Recreation Director, Steven Roenfeldt, says that skating at the Rez is something unique the town offers.

“We are grateful to the volunteers that make this happen,” he said. “Having it be accessible to more people by providing skates makes it something the town should be proud of.”

Unfortunately, even with the efforts of the Friends of the Rez, it just hasn’t been open as frequently as it once was. Last year it opened just a handful of times, and in some years has been closed but for one or two days. Volunteers say the weather is the biggest factor. While warmer weather is expected this coming week, it’s unclear how many more opportunities there will be to skate there this year as winter truly settles in.

Our unpredictable New England winter weather during recent years has also made it difficult to gain a following and build momentum.

“When we were open every week it just grew. It’s when you’re in this sporadic stuff, a lot of the people just don’t know, and it makes a difference,” LaRochelle explained. “Years ago we would give out $1,000 scholarships — that’s how much money that concession stand made. There used to be hundreds of kids there every day.”

The future success of the Rez will ultimately be determined by the level of local involvement. The Friends of the Rez urge area residents to check in, offer to volunteer, lend a hand, and show up and skate. The Rez offers free skate rentals to the folks who don’t own a pair. Those who do own a pair, volunteers said, are encouraged to bring them by Southbridge Bicycles on Central Street to get them sharpened.

The Rez will be open Sunday, January 7 from 12:00 noon to 3:00pm at 262 High Street. There are often hockey games being played on the ice, so those interested are encouraged to bring their hockey sticks as well.

For additional historical photos of the reservoir being used as a public pool as well as a skating rink, visit www.dickwhitney.net.

Historic postcard of the Rez in 1911 courtesy of Sue Pontibrand.

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